In this blog, Professor Richard Saundry and Professor Peter Urwin take a deep dive into the evidence surrounding the debate about ‘what makes a good manager’ and explore the implications for practice.
Since the late 1960s, UK productivity has lagged behind its main competitors, despite the efforts of governments of very different political persuasions to address the so-called ‘British disease’. In recent years, it has been argued that one of the causes of low productivity is the poor quality of management in the UK. Specifically, it has been suggested that ‘operational’ not ‘strategic’ management – the day-to-day stuff that may not be so glamorous – is central to explaining performance differences. This comes with a belated recognition that it is also very hard to do well.
A key finding and focus of debate around the UK’s industrial strategy, is the apparent differences in productivity and management performance that exist between workplaces, even when they are in the same organisation. This would not of itself be surprising – if we take a snapshot in time, some workplaces may be catching up with others as they transition to new management teams. What is surprising is that these differences tend to persist and can be found across a wide range of economies – even in the US, which is seen as having the highest performing workplaces in terms of management practice. Thus we see that within the same country, within the same country/industry sector and even within the same company, there are often large disparities in management practice between workplaces and these do not disappear over time.
Given the global nature of this problem, it seems sensible to suggest that it is something about ‘management’ per se. In the UK context, concern over a ‘long tail’ of poorly performing companies, can be seen as simply reflecting a particularly acute example. So, what is the problem? If we know what makes a good manager, can we create the relevant approaches to selection and training that would ensure the right skills, in the right place, at the right time?
Kathryn Shaw, at Stanford University suggests that studies in economics find good bosses are ‘good teachers’ and ‘experts in the work they are managing’, with these two traits seen as particularly important. We must be careful, as these suggestions are themselves interpretations of research insights, from findings that workers retain a large proportion of any performance gains from working with a good manager, even when they move on to another – the economists are implicitly discounting the potential for this gain to be due to continuing higher levels of staff motivation.
However, these conclusions also stand in stark contrast to a widely-held view among academics and practitioners in the UK that the inability of many organisations to manage conflict is rooted in a tendency to recruit and promote managers on the basis of their technical expertise, rather than their ability or preparedness to manage people. Research at Google hints at the importance of interpersonal skills – suggesting that good managers empower the team (listening and sharing information), take a clear interest in the wellbeing and careers of their staff, are ‘results oriented’ and present a clear vision.
In our view, these apparently different findings are not necessarily incompatible – managers need credibility which can be based on their track-record and subject expertise, but this can only take them so far. To be ‘good teachers’, to ‘empower’ their staff and to win their trust, managers need to be able to ask good questions and listen to their staff. While these are often condescendingly referred to as ‘soft skills’, they are essential in having high quality conversations and negotiating collaborative solutions to complex problems. However, they are often overlooked as we seek to turn managers into leaders.
These skills form the basis of the ESRC Skilled Managers – Productive Workplaces study which seeks to evaluate the impact of an online training programme aimed at improving managers’ conflict competence, on workplace performance. The programme we have developed moves the focus away from specific management practices and procedures, and emphasises the way in which managers interact with their colleagues or, to quote the Fun Boy Three and Bananarama – ‘it ‘ain’t what you do, it’s the way that you do it’. Of course, whether this ‘gets results’, as the song says, is a more difficult question and our research will fundamentally explore whether good management can be developed, or if it is something that some people just have.
Richard Saundry is Professor of HRM and Employment Relations at Sheffield University Management School
Peter Urwin is Professor of Applied Economics at the Westminster Business School
We are currently looking for organisations to take part in the Skilled Managers-Productive Workplaces study. If you would be interested in finding out more and sampling our free online skills intervention, please email Fatima Maatwk at firstname.lastname@example.org.